Mateo Kehler remembers the date perfectly. It was shortly after Jasper Hill Farm — the Greensboro, Vt., dairy farm and cheesemaking operation he founded in 2003 with brother Andy — took two of the 20 top spots in the World Championship Cheese Contest. Jasper Hill’s cheeses, made with milk from the farm’s cows and ripened in on-site caves, frequently win awards and appear on menus all over the country. If you’ve ever ordered a cheese plate in a local restaurant, chances are you’ve tried their Bayley Hazen Blue. The Boston market was purchasing about 1,500 pounds of it each week.
Then came the coronavirus. "We saw our sales drop by about 40 percent overnight," Kehler says. Sales of Bayley Hazen Blue fell by 70 percent. "That was the week of March 16, which will be forever burned in our brains. There's before and after. That will be a defining moment for the food industry."
Artisan cheese is a point of pride in New England. The region’s clothbound cheddars, pungent blues, and tangy chevres are recognized widely for their excellence, with tourists flocking to visit the 40-plus stops on the Vermont Cheese Trail. But since the start of the pandemic, the industry has been struggling. Chefs have been the champions of small cheesemakers, and with restaurants closed, those accounts disappeared. Orders from specialty shops decreased as well. And cheesemakers who depend on farmers’ markets for income are looking at a bleak season ahead, with tourism down and the markets adjusting operations to accommodate social distancing.
Beth Falk, owner of Mill City Cheesemongers in Lowell and president of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild, took an informal survey of the guild’s members; sales for state cheesemakers appeared to be down on average 70 to 75 percent in mid-April, she says. In Vermont, where cheese is a $650 million industry, producers saw a 50 to 70 percent reduction in sales, according to the Vermont Cheese Council. These numbers are mirrored nationally: A May survey by the American Cheese Society of nearly 1,000 members found sales down 58 percent. And in France, where sales dropped by 60 percent, the dairy sector called on consumers to eat cheese in solidarity with the producers.
“I would describe it as fairly dire,” says Vermont Cheese Council executive director Marty Mundy. “There are makers that have stopped production. … Some have scaled very far back. Some have sold animals.” Some have had to cull older, less-productive animals from their herds. Jasper Hill, which operates two farms and buys milk from a couple of neighbors, has been milking 50 cows on its home farm since the early days. Rather than stop purchasing from their partners, they dispersed those animals to nearby farms.
"We're looking out at an uncertain future, understanding that our ability to manage cash through the summer would be existential for us," Kehler says. "It was a really hard, emotional decision, but it has enabled us to keep our people and team intact."
Cheesemaking requires the balancing of many complex equations like this, and the variables and conclusions differ for each operation. Do they milk their own animals? Do they rely on distributors or have direct relationships with retailers and consumers? Do they make a few kinds of cheese or a wider range? Many producers have pressed pause on making soft cheeses, which have a short shelf life and need to sell quickly, concentrating instead on hard, aged ones, which can be stored longer.
That’s the case at Ruggles Hill Creamery, which makes award-winning farmstead goat cheese in Hardwick. “I specialize in these small-format, bloomy-rind cheeses that are ready for market, some of them, as soon as 12 days old. Most get sold within a 12- to 27-day range,” says cheesemaker Tricia Smith. “I did what a lot of cheesemakers did who could. I switched a lot of production in March and April to raw milk cheeses to buy myself some time to see where the market would be.” She and her husband, Michael Holland, were already in the midst of downsizing their operation by choice, so they were in a better position to weather the pandemic. “If this had happened last year, we would have been in real trouble.”
Moving away from cheese that can be sold right now removes one source of revenue, and animals still need to be fed. Kate Turcotte and her husband, Zack Munzer, took over the long-running Orb Weaver Creamery in New Haven, Vt., two years ago. It’s a small outfit, with 10 cows. “We can’t just not buy milk one day. The animals are constantly producing,” Turcotte says. (Some farmers are choosing to dry off animals, but milk supply can’t be turned on and off like a faucet; it will be a year before those animals are producing again.) “We can divert into longer-aged cheeses, but no money is coming in. We did have to sell a couple of our cows immediately. The cost of feeding our cows is really expensive. We couldn’t handle the drop in sales and that expense.”
After a 50 percent drop in the first three weeks, they have been able to build their sales partially back up through online farmers’ markets, farm stands, curbside pickup, and mail order. There’s more labor involved in all of this. Rather than selling a wheel of cheese to one shop, for example, they now need to break it down and sell all of those pieces to different people.
"The list of accounts we're working with doubled," Turcotte says. "We're working 10 times as hard for 70 percent of the money. We've been able to limp along through innovating our business and pivoting to get the cheese to the people in a different way."
This has also been a slower time of year. Orb Weaver Creamery is predominantly a market cheesemaker, and May is when business typically picks up, driven by Vermont’s tourist industry. “People aren’t going to be coming and roaming around the farmers’ market while staying at a bed-and-breakfast,” Turcotte says. “For us to be able to get that full retail dollar is super-important. Cheesemaking is a pretty low-margin business. You can’t survive just selling to wholesalers and distributors.”
The mail-order business has brought some hope, helping sustain cheesemakers now and opening up possible new ways of doing business in the future. The Massachusetts Cheese Guild, Vermont Cheese Council, Oldways Cheese Coalition, and others have created online sales directories to connect consumers with makers and mongers. And shops are coming up with ways to showcase producers. At Formaggio Kitchen, says owner Ihsan Gurdal, they were choosing one a week to buy a large amount from, then featuring their story on social media and packaging several of their cheeses with other goodies. One week, for instance, they sold three selections from Sage Farm Goat Dairy of Stowe, Vt., with crackers and a bottle of wine, plus an optional condiment. At Curds & Co., customers have the option of calling the Tele-Monger, basically a cheese hotline, with someone on the other end to talk callers through the in-shop selection, help them put together a cheeseboard, or select the perfect wine, beer, or cider as an accompaniment.
And cheesemakers, mongers, chefs, and industry groups have come together to create Victory Cheese, an effort that is just beginning to roll out. The name is a play on the victory gardens of World War I and II, which Americans planted with the goal of self-sufficiency. The aim: to save the artisan cheese industry in the US and sustain it going forward. The tagline: “Choose it or lose it.” Producers and retailers are creating and selling Victory Cheese Boxes, featuring a range of regional selections. They are available from local shops such as Allium Market in Brookline, the Cheese Shop of Concord, and Mill City Cheesemongers. Each one is different.
At Mill City Cheesemongers, the Victory Cheese Box changes every two weeks and includes offerings from three or four local producers. The first one is available now, and it highlights Massachusetts cheesemakers Cricket Creek Farm of Williamstown, Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery of Boxford, Shy Brothers of Westport, and Valley View Farm of Topsfield.
The current situation is difficult, but the artisanal cheese industry is facing it head on. “I am surprised to see so many people in reasonably good spirits,” says Mill City’s Falk, the Massachusetts Cheese Guild president. “I think it’s because, despite the economic challenges facing a lot of our cheesemakers, they are seeing a lot of enthusiasm and interest in supporting them. They recognize they are valued. That goes a long way.”
For online cheese directories, go to www.macheeseguild.org, www.vtcheese.com, and www.oldwayspt.org. For more information on Victory Cheese, including links to purchase boxes, go to www.victorycheese.com.